The National Curriculum

Ken Jones

Two years after the ‘Reform Act’ that was meant to end it, the English education crisis is unmistakably back. The signs of its return are many and familiar: rows over ‘standards’; anxious comparisons with European rivals; despairing accounts of the material state of schools; and fevered plans for a yet-further extension of the market system. All this after a decade of spectacular Conservative victories, in which those held responsible for educational decline were dealt blow after blow. Teacher trade-unionism was defeated and put in legal shackles. ‘Radical’ local authorities were pilloried and, in the case of the largest, abolished. The orthodoxies of an equal-opportunity-minded educational establishment were replaced at the heart of policy by the programmes of the Conservative Right. All to no avail: the wiping-out of the progressive enemy has only served to highlight the abiding problems of English education.

Andy Green has recently written a book, Education and State Formation: The Rise of Education Systems in England, France and the USA,[*] which illuminates these problems very clearly. ‘Lacking whole-hearted state encouragement and with no effective central authority to co-ordinate it, English education,’ he writes, ‘developed in an unsystematic and almost haphazard fashion.’ This planlessness was the basis on which great and petty privilege thrived. Post-1944 governments tried to bring some order and a greater fairness to the scene, but even through the red Sixties it remained a patchwork of different kinds of provision and curriculum. It held back efforts to reduce social inequality and prevented the development of a high level of mass education.

In this context we can grasp the full perversity of the Conservative achievement: it has involved the use of state power, not to plan and control change, but to re-establish in the school system all the old force of the unsystematic and the haphazard. Thus local authorities are prevented from planning on the basis of any rational calculation of educational need. A system of ‘open enrolment’ allows schools to compete with each other for pupils; the losers face decline and closure. Other schools are enticed to ‘opt out’ of local authority control, to be funded, more generously, by central government. Under Mr Major’s brief leadership, the outlines of the system – whose effects are the very reverse of ‘classless’ – have if anything become sharper. Scant attention is given to the area of education where international comparisons are most painful: post-16 training has been handed back to employers; academic education remains dominated by an A-level system that discourages working-class involvement.

Not everything, though, is unplanned. The survival of a school may depend upon market forces, but the stage at which pupils should know the placing of a comma is determined by the Secretary of State. The National Curriculum, in which these powers are embodied, is a towering, highly detailed landmark of planning, amid the general landscape of neglect. This is one reason why the Tory Right has never liked it. The Right devoted much attention to destroying the influence of educational progressives. It was prepared to accept some kind of national curriculum, as an alternative to teacher-dominated education. However, the Right’s ideas about teaching and learning owe more to nostalgia than to prolonged thought, and there was little it could contribute once the detail of the curriculum came under consideration. At this point, the defeated establishment re-emerged, bringing with it preferences, well-grounded in the practice of schools, for ‘oracy’, ‘relevance’, ‘learning through doing’, and much else in the litany of progressivism.

The Right thus came to see planning as something that involved unacceptable compromises with the enemy. But there are more fundamental reasons for its mistrust of a national curriculum: the very idea embodies principles of universal entitlement with which Conservatives, sensing a certain Jacobinism, are uncomfortable.

These persistent doubts go some way to explaining the continued tensions over the National Curriculum in the Government and in the Conservative Party. What are often presented as straightforward questions about the workability of the new system – is it too crowded with detail? is the testing system too complex? – have acquired, in Conservative debates, a further, arcane level of meaning. The Right would like a simpler curriculum, less susceptible to progressive influence. It is hostile to complex processes of testing, not because they overload teachers with work, but because by trying to assess pupils’ grasp of ‘non-basic’ skills, they validate progressive ideas.

The Right also wants to strengthen ‘differentiation’ in the new system: it intends to re-establish the clear divide between academic swans and vocationally-minded donkeys that has done so much to perpetuate the English educational crisis. The more crowded, detailed and unified the National Curriculum system, the harder this is to achieve. That is why the junior education minister Tim Eggar is now encouraging schools to develop for 14-year-olds a vocational alternative to the academic curriculum. In this way the logic of changes in school organisation would be extended to the content of learning: a two-tier curriculum would complement a hierarchical pattern of school provision. The spectre of universal entitlement, so inconveniently raised by the National Curriculum, could he laid to rest.

While the Conservatives consider lighting a small bonfire of their own controls, Labour has emerged as a champion of national regulation. Interviewed in the Times, its education spokesman, Jack Straw, talked of annual testing of pupils and compulsory assessment of teachers. The National Curriculum, albeit slimmed down, would be retained. As Bob Moon notes in his lucid if insufficiently controversial Guide to the National Curriculum,[†] it is ‘highly unlikely’ that changes in government would lead to the total repeal of the legislation. The studied vagueness of Labour’s December document Aiming high, for which Straw’s interview was a trailer, confirms Moon’s claim.

It is possible to have a lot of fun with Labour’s late and fervent conversion to particular aspects of the Conservative programme, but that is to miss the point. Linked to promised reforms in post-16 education, and to the reassertion of local authority control over the types of semi-independent school that the Tories have invented, Straw’s is a perfectly coherent position. It aims to provide the ‘effective central authority’ which English education has lacked. That authority will establish normative expectations for all students. It will monitor school performance and deal severely with under-achieving institutions and teachers. It is a bold, though partly-borrowed programme for bringing the ‘producers’ into line with consumer demand and national need. But there are at least two reasons for thinking that it will not work.

The first reason concerns teachers. For the last decade, the Government has sought to promote in teachers a great fear of educational initiative. It has devised laws against political partisanship in teaching, and instructed schools to seek the advice of the Police on educational matters. Conservative activists have scrutinised curricula for evidence of subversion, and have found enough material for several productive scandals. Parents have been encouraged to become the vigilantes of education, to chide and complain.

Within schools, the accent is on strong management and weak trade-unionism. Work gets harder, while the space for autonomous, ‘professional’ decision-making is reduced. An agenda set by scanty resources, inter-school competition and central curriculum directive leads to a working life in which frantic activity is combined, among large sections of an ageing work-force, with increasing alienation.

This accumulated weariness and frustration creates problems not only for the implementation of Conservative curricular schemes but for any project of change in the near-future. How can projects that depend, not just upon obedience, but upon willingness and initiative, be carried out in the context of the depressive relationships established over the last ten years? How can the promise of higher standards be fulfilled? Labour, it seems, will rely on further external stimulus – teacher assessment and more testing – combined with pay increases. Essentially, this is still a programme that relies more on coercion than consent. It may be cheered on by the Guardian – which employs a whole stable of correspondents to allege the intellectual and professional slovenliness of the teachers who form such a large part of its readership – but it will not alter the present culture of schools to the point where teachers become a body with any enthusiasm for educational reform.

Assuming for the moment, however, that teachers did commit themselves to Labour’s changes, there remains a further question: would the kinds of teaching and learning favoured by Labour (which are not, so far as one can judge, different from those promoted by the National Curriculum) actually lead to a raising of standards?

Here it’s necessary to return to old debates. English sociology spent decades establishing the relationship between social class and educational achievement as a central issue for educational policy. As the solution offered by the simple abolition of selection at 11 showed its weaknesses, attention began to shift to curriculum content and teaching method, as areas which needed fundamental change if working-class children were to succeed in state education. It was at this point, somewhere in the mid-Seventies, that the curtain came down. From then on, there has been no national interest in the relationship between class and achievement – no large-scale research, no government policy. The National Curriculum makes very little mention of class. It presents instead a model of learning which is the same for all ‘regardless of sex, ethnic origin or geographical location’. Debate about the curriculum usually now proceeds as if children are identical. Educational failure is the result, thus, of individual backwardness or of inefficiency in the system. This is the model which Labour has gratefully inherited, and which will now guide its policy.

The National Curriculum’s defenders are of two sorts. The first, who include Norman Stone, believe in it as a means of ‘ramming the national culture down pupils’ throats’. The second see it as a means of guaranteeing access for all to the same kinds of knowledge and understanding. But these defenders from the left in fact encounter the same issues that the statements of people like Stone pose: what is the social status of the knowledge embodied in the National Curriculum? In what relationship does it stand to the experience of pupils who do not share ‘the national culture’?

It is difficult now, given the history of English education, to pose questions like these. They are associated with a child-centred tradition that may have saved some pupils from alienation, but by locking them more firmly into their own cultures it has deprived them of any empowering social understanding. Nevertheless, the limitations of the progressives’ conclusions do not invalidate the questions that they pose. They are right to suggest that students are likely to respond best to an education that takes some notice of their lives, their languages, their histories, and right to point out that this is not an experience which many students have been given. Where they have erred is in not seeking to establish a framework of learning in which immediate experience is placed in wider contexts.

Labour has come to a brisk and harsh judgment on these failings, but in doing so it has turned aside from the real problems of learning that they sought to address. It is difficult to see how its uncritical support for a ‘universalist’ model of the curriculum can do anything other than perpetuate important factors in the under-achievement of working-class students. It should rethink it. Labour should publish a framework for the curriculum – broad principles within which schools should work. In addition, it should reject the forlorn and unworkable efforts of the National Curriculum to specify the minute detail of learning objectives, and look instead to the kind of criteria worked out at GCSE (16+) level. It should set out the major educational issues – class among them – that it wants schools and local authorities to address. It should fund research and exemplary initiatives in these areas. It should monitor the performance of schools and the success of their initiatives. Publishing league tables of schools’ test results is not essential to such monitoring, and Labour should abandon it. In these ways, it would liberate educational thought from the confines of the National Curriculum, as well as attending to the necessary work of recognising success and correcting failure.

Likewise, Labour should condemn, rather than imitate, that combination of market pressures and management rigour that is turning staffrooms into intellectual deserts. It should ensure that schools are funded according to their educational needs, not the numbers they attract. It should promote shared decision-making among teachers, and the kind of parent involvement that is concerned with educational discussion, and not – as at present – with the management of scant resources. On this course, Labour will no doubt provoke some difficult controversies. It would also re-introduce to official policy what has long been excluded: the development of a committed, educationally alert work-force; discussion of the lives and learning of children; informed popular involvement in their education.

[*] Macmillan, 353 pp., £45, 1990, 0 333 51897 7.

[†] To be published by Oxford in March.